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I am very glad to welcome an old friend and fellow resister-of-bad-ideas, Michael Ferber, to the postings of All In One Boat.  We’ve shared much, in fair weather and foul over the years and are united in cursing the foulest of all, arriving just as we enter our golden years.  Hope you enjoy his reviews and commentary as they appear.



The term “Anthropocene” has gained a lot of traction lately, even in literature departments, where I hang out, for both good and bad reasons.  It is a Big Idea, probably valid in itself, and very scary; it demands our absolute attention.  But it is also a new plaything in cultural studies among those who feel they must be au currant, and it has been pressed into quite a few “grand narratives,” all of which serve ideological purposes or mislead us to one degree or another.  Or distract us from what we must do.

The term, introduced at conferences around 2000, refers not to just another historical period but to a geologic or stratigraphic break, on a scale that will leave a trace for future geologists, if there are any, to find, like the one that separates the Cenozoic Era from the Mesozoic Era that preceded it (marked by the remains of the asteroid of 66 million years ago and the abrupt change in fossils), or, within the Cenozoic Era, the one that separates the Pleistocene from the Holocene, marked by the last recession of the glaciers about 12 thousand years ago.  Geologists are strict about such labels, and the international scientific congresses have not yet endorsed this one, though the Working Group on the Anthropocene voted to adopt it and recommended it to the International Geological Conference last year.

When did it begin?  Some say 1784, when Watt patented the steam engine, which made possible the industrial revolution; others say 1945, at the start of the “Great Acceleration” following the orgy of destruction in World War II and the enormous industrial mobilization of the US; in either case, quite recently.  Of course humans have been remaking the earth since at least the agricultural revolution, early in the Holocene, but the pace of it and the extent of it has grown geometrically for several generations now.  This book argues it is here, and here to stay, and the changes it has already wrought on the earth are not reversible, at least not for many centuries, perhaps millennia.

The Shock of the Anthropocene [Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, 2013 in France, translation by David Fernbach (London: Verso, 2017)] is fairly short but it is packed with interesting, even shocking (to me at least), facts, but laced with critiques of some of the theories of it or stories told about it.  For the data alone it is worth having at hand; every page has three or four footnotes to studies in English or French on every aspect of what we humans have done to the earth.  Dozens of the citations sound like books or articles I feel I should read, if I had the time; this book creams off important conclusions from hundreds of them.

One point the authors insist on is that it was not really “we humans” who have done it, not anthropos in a collective sense, but certain groups in certain countries who had gained the power to do it, and did it. They like to offer new names for the new age in each chapter, and one is “Anglocene,” for it was mainly Great Britain and the United States that propelled the carbon revolution: in 1900 they accounted for 60% of all CO2 emissions ever emitted, and by 1980 it was still nearly 50%.  Moreover it was not “the British people” who did it, or “the Americans,”  but certain people in positions of power: it was the “Oliganthropocene.”  A certain economic system had the major say in it: it was the “Capitalocene.”  (They are devastatingly clear about how capitalism has ruined half the earth, though their case would have been strengthened if they had said something about what so-called Communism did to the environment as well.)

The grand narrative that Bonneuil and Fressoz take the most pains to debunk is the one that says that “we” human just didn’t know any better until about thirty years ago, whereupon the scientists of the world discovered and measured what had happened and called the world’s attention to it.  We must now trust these scientific heroes to “manage” the economies and energy-systems of the world in order to lead us out of disaster or at least confine it; they will guide us into becoming “the gardeners of the earth.”  One way they will manage it is by “climate engineering,” which has already been done on small scales.

The authors are very critical of this version of events.  First of all it wasn’t thirty years ago, or even fifty (the first Earth Day was 1970), that scientists (and many others) first sounded the alarm, but two hundred years ago, even three hundred.  People had long noticed the loss of forests and the depletion of fish stocks in Europe, and no sooner was coal put to use in steam engines than worries arose over the supply of it.  As early as 1766 Jean-Baptiste Robinet wrote, “We [humans] and the other large animals are no more than parasites on that greater animal that we call the Earth.”  But the interests of industrial capitalists and military and political leaders took precedence; they might have heard the warnings or they might not, but they didn’t care in either case.  William Jevons, the great 19C economist, fully understood the unsustainability of coal use, and said we (we British) must choose between “brief greatness and longer continued mediocrity”—but he recommended brief greatness.

There were not just warnings but resistance.  Machine-breakers in Britain (the Luddites) and France were not just small groups but majorities of weavers in some areas, and whole divisions of infantry had to be sent to defeat rebellions against the enclosures and privatization of common forests.  Some early socialist movements were strenuously opposed mechanization—not to all machines, usually, but to those that degraded labor and made worse products.

Secondly, we had better not assume that scientists know how to “engineer” the earth.  Pumping sulphur dioxide into the air, for example, to reflect solar radiation may be a very bad way to try to cool the earth.  If we let them do it, we may get a benevolent dictatorship of ignorant experts, an “eco-fascism.”  By the same token the authors don’t believe in “sustainable development,” and they claim that talking about “sustainability” just deludes us into thinking that if we just make some adjustments and tighten our belts a little we can continue as we have.  We cannot.  There can be no more “development” of the sort we have seen for the last two centuries.  They also dislike the word “crisis” for what we are facing, for it maintains a “deceptive optimism,” implying that we are in a perilous but transitory state, whereas the truth is that “the Anthropocene is a point of no return.”

As a reminder of how far back we can trace massive human impacts on the globe, Bonneuil and Fressoz cite a study that shows that the level of CO2 in the air was 279 parts per million in 1500 (the norm for millennia) but it had dropped to 272 by 1610.  Why?  The Spanish invasion of the Americas.  Within a few decades at least 50 million native Americans died, and the forests came back in both Americas.  Plants take carbon dioxide out of the air.

Among other myths the authors criticize is the myth of ever greater efficiency as the driver of new sorts of energy, as if a rational, objective factor accounts for our energy “progress.”  It is not true, they argue, that the steam engine gained its dominance because it was more efficient than water power for the factories of Britain and America.  It was not.  But water power required cooperation among manufacturers, and they preferred to compete; water power varied with the seasons and weather while steam engines allowed nonstop production; and steam engines let manufacturers move their factories to where it suited them, e.g., near cheap labor.  For its part oil is not cheaper or more efficient than coal, for many purposes, but capitalists were tired of the militant unionism of coal miners; oil-producing requires smaller work forces of more specialized sorts, harder to unionize.  Automobiles were not more efficient than the electric trolleys that criss-crossed our cities or the steam-driven railroads that connected them.  Solar energy used to abound in California and Florida; in the 1950s 80% of Florida homes had solar water-heaters.  In 1900 there were six million windmills in America.  We are only now beginning to get back to what we had, after a few plutocrats, mostly in the oil and automobile business, destroyed most of it.

The authors are quite good on the “Thanatocene,” another name for the new age, the age of Death.  Besides what it did to millions of people, the two world wars did enormous harm to nature, some of it permanent.  Starting two decades later, about 40% of Vietnam’s arable land was damaged, and it lost about 25% of its forest cover.  Much of the infrastructure of highways, oil refineries and pipelines, ports, and the like, here in the US and almost everywhere now, was driven by military demands.  The routes of the US interstate highway system were determined in part by the location of military bases, and the width of roads, bridges, and tunnels was set to accommodate military vehicles.  Use of oil by the US military rose from about 1% of the national total to nearly 30% during World War 2.  “In 2006 the US Air Force consumed a total of 2.6 billion gallons of jet fuel, as much as was used overseas during the whole of the Second World War.”

With plenty of warning and quite a bit of opposition, how is it that the industrial capitalists from the late-18C onward carried all before them?  There are many reasons, notably the bribing of home populations with material wealth while they scoured the planet for raw materials, backed by the British and then US navies, but Bonneuil and Fressoz lay weight on the “Agnotocene,” the age of ignorance.  We have been induced to forget what we knew about the degradation of nature and the unsustainability of growth, and we have been blinded to the current reality of the world in part by theories of economics that either (1) leave out the natural or material basis of all economic life by reducing it to “utility” or substituting other factors (labor or capital) for natural limits, or (2) put a price on nature and treat it as a commodity like any other (“free-market environmentalism”).  Growing scarcity and even ecological crises can be money-making opportunities; as nature and our quality of life fall, the GDP still rises.  There is still a widespread assumption of unlimited growth despite its manifest absurdity.  This dematerialized economics works in tandem with the idea of “progress” to quiet our fears and induce a kind of religious faith in the future.  But it’s too late.

The authors invoke the tradition of William Morris, Gustav Landauer, Mohandas Gandhi, George Orwell, Jacques Ellul, and many others who understood the depredations of capitalism and other mindless industrializing ideologies and argued for thoughtful control of machines and respectful humility before nature.  They invite us to resist the onslaught and build decent communities we might survive in, even thrive in.  They do not tell us how to do so.  (For that we should turn, for example, to Jeremy Brecher’s new booklet Against Doom.)  But the book is a remarkably thorough and succinct compendium of facts about has happened, who did it, and the right and wrong ways of thinking about it.

Michael Ferber

June, 2017